Africa may be the fastest growing continent on earth economically, yet the continent’s infrastructure development is one of the slowest. With road, rail and air networks unable to cope with the growing commerce and need for movement of goods between countries and cities, could the solution lie in an unlikely source – drones? Tom Jackson finds out.
According to the World Bank, Africa needs to spend at least $38 billion every year, just to sustain the current level of development, in addition to a further $37 billion on operations and maintenance. That’s a lot of money, and in spite of Africa’s growth there are limited government or private investment schemes to improve the continent’s infrastructure.
However, the answer could well come from an unlikely source – drones, as the gadgets usually associated with warfare and private usage have come under consideration for their potential to play a huge part in Africa’s commercial future. In Switzerland, the Afrotech technology innovation project at the Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) has been working on cargo drones in a bid to allow Africa to leapfrog infrastructural development.
Afrotech is currently raising funding to launch Red and Blue cargo drone routes in Africa next year, with the first drones likely to be able to carry packages for distances of up to 80km. The initial testing will be of the Red Line – for transporting blood to health clinics – but director Jonathan Ledgard says the real money will be in the Blue Line, which would see commercial items transported by drones.
Discussions are still underway as to exactly where these first cargo drone routes will be tested, but Afrotech’s view is that once they are, it will become clear that commercial cargo drone routes will provide a quicker and cheaper way of delivering goods, assisting an e-commerce sector long plagued by poor roads and unreliable delivery services.
Sound like a long shot? Perhaps it does. But it is not just Afrotech that believes this could work in Africa and elsewhere. In Europe, there are moves underway to put drones into use in commercial activities. Amazon wants a separate airspace zone for commercial drones delivering items to customers, while the likes of Alibaba and Google have also been carrying out private trials of drones.
There is a strong view in the developed world that drones are the delivery vehicles of the future, though regulatory hurdles and concerns over safety will have to be overcome.
“There is no doubt that unmanned vehicles – whether for road, ocean or air transport – are one of the most exciting new technologies made available to us through breakthroughs and exponential growth in digitisation and robotics,” says Oliver Evans, chief cargo officer of Swiss International Air Lines, which has engaged with Afrotech and drone manufacturers such as Matternet to explore the capabilities of drones. Evans said the idea that using drones as a means of transporting goods is outrageous comes from the fact people have been used to hearing about them in a purely military capacity, and a lack of awareness and imagination to see other potential – more constructive – uses.
“We at Swiss World Cargo are excited about the prospects for this new and supplementary mode of transport which has clear unique advantages in terms of fuel to payload efficiency and access in difficult terrain.”
Afrotech may have led the way, but there are signs other countries and organisations in Africa may be realising the potential commercial and infrastructural benefits of cargo drones.
Rwanda is to host the world’s first drone airport – or “droneport” – built by architectural firm Foster & Partners.
The “droneport” will provide a base for cargo drones, initially delivering medical and emergency supplies to more remote areas. The company believes the potential for drones is large as transport infrastructure in Africa is not sufficient to reach enough of the population.
“Just as mobile phones dispensed with landlines, cargo drones can transcend geographical barriers such as mountains, lakes, and unnavigable rivers without the need for large-scale physical infrastructure,” the company said.
“The specialist drones can carry blood and life-saving supplies over 100km at minimal cost, providing an affordable alternative that can complement road-based deliveries.”
“Just a third of Africans live within two kilometres of an all-season road, and there are no continental motorways, almost no tunnels, and not enough bridges that can reach people living in far-flung areas of the continent. It would require unprecedented levels of investment in roads and railways to catch up with the exponential growth in Africa’s population, which is set to double to 2.2 billion by 2050. An ‘infrastructural leap’ is essential using drone technology and clean energy systems to surmount the challenges of the future.”
This infrastructural leap will be provided by the droneport, where drones will be able to land and be manufactured. It will also include a health clinic, a digital fabrication shop, a mailroom, and be a place for e-commerce.
Work is due to begin next year on the Rwandan pilot project. As many as 40 droneports could be built in the country if it is a success, with expansion into DRCongo also being considered.
“Africa is a continent where the gap between the population and infrastructural growth is increasing exponentially,” Norman Foster said.
“The droneport project is about doing ‘more with less’, capitalising on the recent advancements in drone technology – something that is usually associated with war and hostilities – to make an immediate life-saving impact in Africa Rwanda’s challenging geographical and social landscape makes it an ideal test-bed for the droneport project. This project can have massive impact through the century and save lives immediately.”
South Africa, too, is making progress on regulating on drones to define how and where they may be used in the country’s development. The South African Civil Aviation Authority (SACAA) has approved Public Display Technologies’ (PDT) Rocketmine Division as the first commercial Remote Piloted Aircraft Systems (RPAS) operator for several key South African business sectors, including mining, agriculture and construction.
Regulations and safety concerns
South Africa is leading the continent when it comes to the regulation of drones, which was prompted by a huge demand for the commercial use of drones in the country. Safety concerns had arisen, with the resulting regulation including the strict SACAA application process to ensure drone operators meet all standards for safety, security and privacy. It does, however, open the way for increased usage of drones in commerce and other sectors.
“Using drones to conduct operational duties has produced high quality data in a fraction of the time and at a percentage of the costs. In the mining industry in particular, most high risk tasks conducted by our drones have eliminated the safety risk for mining staff,” said Chris Clark, RocketMine Division Head.
“There is no doubt that drones are set to revolutionise the way in which many key industries in South Africa conduct their business,” said Albert Msithini, manager of Unmanned Aircraft Systems at the SACAA, and that the new regulations were important in finding a place for drones in the country’s development.
“The commercial use of drones has already shown huge success in the mining and agricultural sectors, as well as construction, forestry and insurance industries. This is likely to expand rapidly as the approval of SACAA licences opens up a whole new world of assessment and operational capacity,” he said. NA